Virtual Mount TBR Final Checkpoint

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The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge, a challenge for reading books you do not own, hosted by Bev @ My Reader’s Block, comes to an end on 31 December.  I read 12 library books, so completing the first level – Mount Rum Doodle.

  1. Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman
  2. Destroying Angel by S G. MacLean
  3. The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies
  4. I Found You by Lisa Jewell
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  6. Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill
  7. The Seeker by S G Maclean
  8. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
  9. Dolly by Susan Hill
  10. The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell
  11. A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
  12. Our Betty by Liz Smith
This is My Life According to Books, using titles from my list: 
  1. My Ex is/was [a] Destroying Angel
  2.  My best friend is The Tea Planter’s Wife
  3. Lately, at work [it’s been like] Great Britain’s Great War
  4. If I won the lottery, [I’d join] The Riviera Set
  5. My fashion sense [is] A Lovely Way to Burn
  6. My next ride [will be with] Our Betty
  7. The one I love is The Seeker
  8. If I ruled the world, everyone would [be invited to] Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  9. When I look out my window, I see Printer’s Devil Court
  10. The best things in life are [because] I Found You

Our Betty: Scenes from my Life by Liz Smith

Our Betty

Simon & Schuster UK| New Ed edition (5 Mar. 2007)|240 pages|Library book|3*

Description from Goodreads:

Liz Smith is one of Britain’s much loved character actresses. This is her life story – from her cosseted yet lonely childhood with her beloved grandparents, through the war, marriage and children, divorce and poverty, long years working in dead-end jobs to her big break at the age of fifty.

From the back cover:

In her brilliantly quirky memoirs Liz Smith tells the hanuting story of her bitter-sweet pre-war childhood’ Daily Mail

These evocative scenes from Lincolnshire life are as good as anything in a Beryl Bainbridge novel. Liz Smith … is our greatest character actress. Her genius is to give all those grotesques and cartoons a measure of her own perky, quirky nature and generous soul. Daily Express

Typically idiosyncratic …shot through with shafts of broad comedy. It’s difficult not to gobble it all up in one go. Sunday Telegraph

From Wikipedia:

Betty Gleadle MBE (11 December 1921 – 24 December 2016), known by the stage name Liz Smith, was an English character actress, known for her roles in BBC sitcoms, including as Annie Brandon in I Didn’t Know You Cared (1975–79), the sisters Bette and Belle in 2point4 Children (1991–99), Letitia Cropley in The Vicar of Dibley (1994–96) and Norma Speakman (“Nana”) in The Royle Family (1998–2006). She also played Zillah in Lark Rise to Candleford (2008) and won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the 1984 film A Private Function.

My thoughts:

I loved the first part of this book as Liz Smith recalls scenes from her childhood. She was born almost a century ago now and the pictures she paints of her childhood in her words and in her little pen and ink sketches reveal a world so far removed from life as we know it today. She gives an excellent portrait of life between the two world wars. Her mother died when she was two and when she was seven her father left home and she never saw him again. She was brought up by her grandparents.

She writes in short sections telling about her home, how she loved going to the pictures, about the neighbours and the shops, about Christmas, the games she played, her first day at school, summer days, riding her bicycle, learning to be a dressmaker and then what she did during WW2 and her life after the war and becoming an actress.

I had thought before I read the book that it would have been all about her life as an actress, but I’m glad it isn’t. Although I was interested to read about the people she worked with in the various parts she played it was no where nearly as fascinating to me as her early years. It is quirky, funny in parts but also sad and moving.

Reading challenges: this is the 12th library book I’ve read this year and completes my Virtual Mount TBR challenge for the year.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh: Mini Review

A Lovely Way to Burn

John Murray|2004|358 pages|Hardback| Library book|4*

I’ve read a few of Louise Welsh’s books and enjoyed each one so when I saw this on the library shelves I borrowed it. I agree with Val McDermid’s description of it on the back cover: ‘a terrifying journey into the possible, this is dystopia for today. Feral, frightening and fascinating, A Lovely Way to Burn gripped and chilled me in equal measure.

Once I started reading I just didn’t want to stop. I was gripped as Stevie Flint, a presenter on a TV show, Shop TV, finds her boyfriend, surgeon Simon Sharkey, lying dead in his apartment. At first it appeared that he had died of natural causes and then that he had killed himself. But he had left a hidden note for her with instructions to deliver his laptop to Malcolm Rhea, a colleague at St Thomas’s Hospital. Under no circumstances was she to take it to the police or to entrust it anyone except Rhea. Stevie is determined to find out what happened to him. Her search takes her into the most dangerous situations.

It is a horrifying vision of what could happen when a new and unidentified virus, known as ‘the sweats’ sweeps the globe. London quickly descends into chaos – supermarkets are looted, roads are gridlocked as people try to flee the infection, then society just crumbles as people look out only for themselves, rioting and eventually succumbing to the mysterious illness and dying. 

After quite a leisurely start the pace picks up, and the tension rises rapidly before reaching a nightmare scenario as decay and disintegration set in. It’s a mix of murder mystery and a surreal and frightening story of a plague. This is the first in Louise Welsh’s Plague Trilogy, but it is complete in itself. I have the second book, Death is a Welcome Guest and it looks as though it has a new set of characters – I’m looking forward to reading it!

My Friday Post: Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’ve just started Gallows Court by Martin Edwards, the first in a series set in 1930s London.

Gallows Court

‘Jacob Flint is watching the house again.’ The housekeeper’s voice rose. ‘Do you think he knows about …?’

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

‘I told you last night not to threaten me, Mr Flint. You should heed my advice. There are worse fates than the misfortune that befell Thomas Betts.’

Blurb:

London, 1930.
A headless corpse; an apparent suicide in a locked room; a man burned alive during an illusionist’s show in front of thousands of people. Scotland Yard is baffled by the sequence of ghastly murders unfolding across the city and at the centre of it all is mysterious heiress Rachel Savernake. Daughter of a grand judge, Rachel is as glamorous as she is elusive.

Jacob Flint, a tenacious young journalist eager to cover the gruesome crimes, is drawn into Rachel’s glittering world of wealth and power. But as the body count continues to rise, Jacob is convinced Rachel is harbouring a dark secret and he soon becomes part of a dangerous game that could leave him dancing at the end of the hangman’s rope if he pursues the truth.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

I have high expectations of this book as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of Martin Edwards’s books that I’ve read, particularly his Lake District murder mysteries. Gallows Court has been on my radar since it was published last year so it’s time I read it, especially as now I see that his next book, due out in March next year, is to be Mortmain Hall, a sequel to Gallows Court. 

The Seeker by S G MacLean

The Seeker (Damian Seeker, #1)

Quercus/ 9 May 2016/Paperback/ 432 pages/ Library Book/ 4*

The Seeker by S G MacLean is the first book in her Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. This one is set in 1654. I’ve read the second and third books in the series and whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones now I’ve read the first one I think it would have better if I had read them in order.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. He is an enigmatic character, and very little is revealed about his background until very near the end of the book. In the later books, particularly in the third, Destroying Angel, I learnt a lot more about him.

Like the later books The Seeker transported me to another time and place. It was as though I was back in England in the 17th century, a place of unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Agents, sometimes clergymen or merchants, working for Cromwell, infiltrated the Royalists abroad supporting the future Charles II; the universities too were useful with dons expert at deciphering coded messages, and there was a highly effective postal service intercepting mail to suspect individuals before being resealed and delivered. And in London, bookshops, taverns and coffee houses were places where conversations were overheard and reported to the authorities.

England in 1654 is a Republic in name only, Parliament had been dissolved in 1653 and Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector – King in all but name, he lived in the former Palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court and his generals imposed even greater restrictions on the freedoms of the public.

It’s a complex novel, as Seeker investigates the murder of Lieutenant John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favoured officers in his New Model Army. He had found Elias Ellingworth, a radical lawyer and journalist, and an outspoken critic of Cromwell’s regime, standing over the bleeding body clutching a knife. But Seeker is not convinced of his guilt and thus the search for the real culprit begins. It takes in royalist plots, the slave trade, dodgy merchants’ deals and an attempt on Cromwell’s life. There are many characters and I had little idea who had killed Winter until right at the end, so I read eagerly trying to work it all out.

Having read three of  the series I particularly like Damian Seeker. He is definitely a man to have on your side, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust. The books are based on solid historical research (S G Maclean has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) bringing the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s to life before my eyes. I particularly liked all the detail about Kent’s Coffee House. I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanting to know more about the period and Cromwell I’ve bought Antonia Fraser’s book, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men.

The Bear Pit, the fourth book in the Seeker series, is due out on 11 July this year.

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Printer's Devil Court

A short while ago I quoted the opening paragraph and an extract from page 56 of this novella in one of My Friday posts. I was hoping Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill would live up to the promise of its blurb of a chilling ghost story.

Blurb (Amazon)

A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer’s Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

Sadly, I don’t think it does live up to the blurb. I think it’s well written, but I didn’t find it chilling, although it does have a great sense of melancholy. Susan Hill is very good at setting the scene, although at times I was under the impression that this was set in Victorian times, especially as the illustrations give it a Dickensian feel. But in this scene when Hugh returns to London forty years later this is what he records :

… this corner of London had changed a good deal. Fleet Street no longer housed the hot-metal presses and many of the old alleys and courts had long gone, most of them bombed to smithereens by the Blitz. (page 68)

So, it’s not set in Victorian times, but in the 20th century.

Hugh is a junior doctor and shares his lodgings with three other medical students, Walter, Rafe and James and the story begins one evening as Walter asks what they all think about the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. It turns out that he and Rafe have been experimenting with the possibility of capturing the last breath and want Hugh to be a witness to what they find. From that point on  I could see almost exactly where the story was heading – it is too predictable.

It’s really a very short story padded out with several pages of illustrations, divided into three parts with an introductory letter, Postscript and Hugh’s Final Pages with blank pages between each sectionMaybe, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with this book if I hadn’t just read Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three of his short stories at the end of that book, which I think are excellent.

  • Hardcover, 105 pages
  • Published September 25th 2014 by Profile Books Ltd (first published October 14th 2013)
  • Source: Library Book

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

A story of guilt, betrayal and secrets, set in colonial era Ceylon.

The Tea Planter's Wife

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies begins in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in 1913, with a scene showing a woman leaving a house, cradling a baby with one arm. She had left a letter behind and I wondered what was in that letter and about the significance of her choosing to wear her favourite dress – a vivid sea green dress she wore the night she was certain the baby was conceived. It didn’t become clear until nearly the end of the book.

Move on twelve years to 1923, when 19 year old Gwendolyn Hooper arrives at the same house, the home of a tea planter, Laurence, an older man, a widower she had met and married in England after a whirlwind romance. The house is set in beautiful flower-filled gardens, sloping down to a shining silver lake and rising up behind the lake a tapestry of green velvet made up of rows of tea bushes where women in brightly coloured saris were plucking the tea leaves. Gwen is enchanted by the scene and is eagerly anticipating her new life with Laurence.

But this is not the idyllic life she expected – there are secrets, locked doors and a caste system and culture that is alien to her. Laurence, no longer as passionate about her as he had been in England, leaves her alone more than she would like. But with the help of one of the servants, Naveen and Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese artist, she begins to settle into life on the plantation, even though it’s obvious that Laurence disapproves of Savi. In turn, Gwen is not happy about the way a glamorous American woman, Christina flirts with Laurence.

There is a mystery, too, surrounding the death of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife and when she finds a tiny overgrown grave no one wants to talk about it. The arrival of Laurence’s younger sister, Verity, only adds to Gwen’s problems – she’s bitter and twisted and it looks as though she has moved in permanently. So, when Gwen becomes pregnant she hopes that will improve her relationship with Laurence, especially as he is delighted that she is expecting twins. This is in many ways such a sad and tragic story – none more so than what happened when the babies were born and Gwen is faced with a terrible dilemma, one that she feels she must keep hidden from Laurence.

This is historical fiction set in a time and place that I know very little about, but I thought  the setting in Ceylon, was beautifully described, exotic and mysterious. It was a time of unrest too, with political and racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and the British plantation owners. Gwen was horrified by the living conditions of the plantation workers but her attempts to improve them and provide basic medical treatment weren’t very successful. I thought the portrayal of Gwen’s character was well done, a young woman with a charming husband, older than her and initially their relationship reminded me of Max and his second wife in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but the similarity ended there as the story developed.

In her Author’s Note at the end of the book (don’t read it before you read the book as it gives away the main secret) Dinah Jefferies explains that the idea for this novel came from her mother-in-law who told her stories passed down by her family, which included tea planters in Ceylon and also in India in the 1920s and early 1930s. They led her to think about the attitudes to race and the typical prejudices of that time – in particular about how such attitudes and assumptions could spell tragedy for a tea planter’s wife who lived an extraordinarily privileged life. She also includes a list of books that she had found useful whilst researching her book.

I’m not sure that I want to read any more of Dinah Jefferies’s books as although I did enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife and it held my interest to the end, I also thought much of it was predictable and in places a bit too sentimentally melodramatic for me.

  • Paperback: 418 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (3 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780241969557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241969557
  • Source: a library book
  • My Rating: 3.5*

Challenges: